GMOs have been shown to increase use of pesticides, which puts the farmworkers who cultivate and harvest the nation’s foods at risk for birth defects, learning disabilities, cancers, and even death. More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, three-quarters of which are used in agriculture. A recent study showed that GMOs require up to 24 percent more pesticides than non-GMOs. Many GMOs have been bred to be resistant to herbicides that will kill all other unwanted plants in the fields. As those unwanted weeds adapt to the poison, however, they become stronger and more resistant to those chemicals. Soon, more and more pesticides are needed to combat the stronger, bigger weeds.
More pesticide application is harmful for farmworkers and their families who often live near the fields they cultivate. Pesticides have been shown to be one of the greatest occupational hazards farmworkers encounter; as stated above, pesticides have been linked to cancers, birth defects, and even death. Not only are farmworkers at risk for pesticide exposure in the fields, they also bring pesticide residues home with them on their clothes and boots, endangering their families. Pesticide drift from fields near farmworker housing also exposes farmworkers and their families to these dangerous chemicals.
Throughout the history of agriculture there has been plant breeding, such as blending two or more plants for taste, like the Gala apple, which is a cross between two apple types. There is, however, a new kind of process which involves taking DNA from totally unrelated organisms and using a process in a lab to insert the DNA into a plant to grow specific traits. The results could not have been produced by nature, as it could have with the aforementioned Gala apple. An example of this new kind of genetic manipulation includes Monsanto’s Bt corn, which has insecticides built into it.
While substantial peer reviewed clinical studies on the human health effect of GMOs are lacking, animal studies and experts in the field have warned about the dangerous connections between GMOs and allergies, antibiotic resistance, immune system problems, infertility, and cancers, among other things. Even if the direct connection between consuming GMOs and health consequences has not been established, the potential threat GMOs pose to human health, due to the potential collateral damage from producing it, must be taken seriously.
Proposition 37,the Genetically Engineered Foods Right to Know Act, is on the ballot for November 6th in California. The proposition would require labeling on raw and processed foods to inform the consumer if the product has been made with plants or animals with altered genetic material. It would prohibit such foods from being labeled as “natural.” The labeling, however, would exclude certain products, such as alcoholic beverages, restaurant foods, and some dairy products. While over 40 countries globally, including many countries in Europe and Asia require GMO labeling, California would be the first state in the U.S. to require such classification.
Why the big fuss over labeling? Many physicians and scientists have come out against genetically altered foods. Supporters of the bill say buyers should have the right to know what kind of products they are consuming. Having GMO labeling would allow consumers to make decisions about their own health and food.
The Proposition 37 opposition is concerned about the cost of labeling. Estimates of the annual costs to the state range from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Labeling would be regulated by the California Department of Public Health, but retailers would be responsible for ensuring products are compliant with the law. Large pesticide companies have weighed in and are contributing over $1 million dollars a day to prevent this from happening. Opponents do not believe that any health benefits would be gained from consumer knowledge about GMO content, but the connection between increased pesticide usage and farmworkers’ health has not been a part of this discussion.
Polling indicates 90 percent of the general public wants GMOs to be labeled. Those who are suffering the gravest consequences from increased pesticide use, namely farmworkers, likely will not have their voices heard tomorrow on November 6th. Yet, they will suffer the health consequences of increased pesticide use. To find out more about how pesticides affect farmworkers, check out AFOP Health & Safety Programs’ Pesticide Safety page.